David Gergen, former Clinton advisor and close consultant to Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Interviewed June 27, 1996
Could you just give us a sense of the evolution of the Bosnia policy and what
you could observe even when you weren't there and, being present at these
Bill Cinton was experiencing a tremendous amount of moral agony about Bosnia
when reports came in, I remember very clearly the day, that the market was
bombed. It was on a Saturday morning. And going into the office to talked to
him about it and he was just, he wasn't in tears, but felt very deeply about
what had happened to the people there in that marketplace and felt that
something had to be done. The United States, the West, had to respond.
And yet he felt boxed in. He felt boxed in because there was no willingness on
the part of America: the public, Congress, the executive branch, to put
American troops on the ground. And absent that, we had very, very little
leverage in the situation, because we were unwilling to put our skin in the
game, as Ross Perot would say. The Europeans had been forgiven the
responsiblity for figuring out what to do there, and we might raise hell about
it. We might take a high moral judgement about it, but absent our willingness
to put troops there, we had very limited options. And the Republicans and
others on the hill were saying, "Well, why don't you lift the embargo?" That,
in theory, was a good idea. But the problem was if you lifted the embargo, the
European troops would leave and the whole situation would collapse, and then
you would be facing a real calamity. Far more people would be killed.
So Bill Clinton felt very much he had a dilemma. Absent of willingness on the
part of the Americans, and he certainly didn't want to put American ground
troops there to settle the problem, the problem was like a Rubik's cube. There
didn't seem to be any solution to it. As it evolved, two or three things began
to happen toward the end. One of them was there was, as Srebrenica fell, and
Americans felt just really this simply cannot go on. The Europeans also began
to feel that. And there was a willingness to use bombs on the American side,
but very importantly, the Croatians broke out. And once they broke out and
began taking land, it began to change the dynamics on the ground. It gave us
an opportunity for Tony Lake and Dick Holbrooke to put together a plan and then
execute that would combine both military force and diplomacy, which has been
very fundamental to what Tony has believed all the time he's been National
Security Advisor. This gave us for the first time an opportunity to break
through, and the President wanted to use that.
I was not there during that endgame. But I'm aware of some of what happened.
I cannot emphasize to you enough that what appeared to the outside as dithering
during the early stages, or as this unfolded, came in large part because we had
both hands tied behind our back. If Americans are unwilling to pay the price
of foreign policy, we try to do it on the cheap, we're going to find, in many
situations, that we simply cannot call the shots. The rest of the world is not
going to listen to us. If we had troops on the ground, then we would have been
in a position to be leaders of the alliance and to push it, and push it toward
a conclusion. We would have had troops at risk, but no one was willing to pay
Some of the people we've spoken with felt that a large part of that foreign
policy trajectory was really driven by a policy of avoidance. It was just
something that could derail the presidency. When Clinton does finally act, he
says "God, I thought that the American people didn't really want us to enter,
but now that I have, it seems to be okay."
I think it's a mistake to believe that we could have entered the war at a much,
much earlier time, with a Congress, even a Democratic Congress in the first two
years of his presidency, and with the American people behind that, if the
purpose was to impose peace. It was quite a different proposition to put the
troops in after you had a peace. That was the whole point. So that I think
that both the Bush administration and the Clinton administration decided
because there was no willingness, after Vietnam, especially after Somalia, in
the Clinton administration, there was no willingness to inject American troops
into a situation in which young men were going to be fighting in a war that
seemed to be a civil war and it was likely to go on for a long, long time. It
didn't seem to be in our national interest. There was no urgency about it in
terms of that. It was a moral problem for the West to stand by. And it was
deeply felt on the part of the Clinton administration, because people felt so
ineffectual under those circumstances. But you have to start with a
fundamental proposition: that American troops make the difference in the
world, American military power. Unless you're willing to use that power,
you're diplomacy may be ineffective.
If you had been present in the beginning, wouldn't you have counselled
Clinton to at least state that but not back and forth and back and forth?
There was a frustration level among the people who saw the administration that
seemed to be going back and forth.
I agree with that. And I think the President himself would acknowledge
that there was too much backhand-forehand, too much talking. And frankly if
you really wanted to ask where you would counsel Bill Clinton, I think it goes
all the way back to the campaign. There was an attempt during the campaign to
in effect out-macho George Bush, to say "I'll be tougher than Bush," because
this is such a moral outrage. That set up a line of expectations on the part
of the world, that the United States was gonna step in in some way and when you
came right up to the brink and looked at what your options were, the option of
putting troops over there in order to make that happen, was extremely
unappealing to the American people and to the Congress and as I say to
everyone around Bill Clinton.
Why don't we talk about your mandate. Why did you come in? What did you
find? Problems that you found, crises that were emerging, to what extent were
they problems of inexperience? To what extent were they related to character?
Why were you called in? What did you find? What did you accomplish?
I'm less than clear totally about why I was called in, and I wish I'd
accomplished more. At the time that I was called by the President and by his
Chief of Staff, Mac McClarty [sp], the Clinton presidency was about six months old.
I think the President felt that he was foundering. I felt that it was
important to the country, given a series of failed Presidents, that we not
experience three and a half more years of inability to govern, that there were
certain reforms I thought that Bill Clinton had set out in his campaign that I
thought were important for the country's progress. And he came to me and said,
"Look, I always wanted a more bi-partisan administration. Maybe you could be a
bridge to some of the Republicans, since you've worked in three Republican
administrations. Can you help me with that?" He said, "I feel like I'm off
course, that I'm off to the left of where I was, and I'd like to find a way
back to the center, and think you can help me with that." And he said, "Thirdly
we're having trouble with the Washington culture, with the press, with the rest
of Washington culture. We're new to this town." They felt like they were
under assault from the Washington folks starting with the press. And they
said, "You've had background in that field, and clearly you could help with
So the notion was to come in with somebody with a few grey hairs, or perhaps
less hair and be a more experienced voice in terms of how they could right
themselves and achieve stability. I must also say that I think that Bill
Clinton had lost some of his self confidence in those first months. It seems
to me, in looking over the Clinton presidency, there are two periods when I
think he lost his self confidence. One was in the early months when he got
banged around really hard, and secondly after the 1994 elections when he got
banged very hard. And both times he had to put himself back together and pull
himself together. And when he asked me to step in and be helpful, I thought as
a citizen one should do that. Now, I thought the first six months while I was
there were productive. That was the last half of 1993. The President, really I
thought, pulled himself together. He regained his composure. He became the
kind of person I'd known for a number of years before he became President. And
that was someone who was more sure of himself. He was more surefooted. He
became more articulate. He lost some of his Washington, the process
conversations we always have in this city began to drop away. He began to
talk about his beliefs again, his values. And he threw himself into some
fights. He threw himself into the fight over NAFTA, the trade agreement with
Mexico and Canada, and I thought that was one of his finest hours as President.
I was really very proud to have been there during that time, because I was a
great supporter of NAFTA.
And he was also, while I was there, he was in the midst of a budget fight.
And I think in retrospect the budget agreement which he got through the
Congress was one of his most significant accomplishments, and we're seeing some
dividends from that with the economy today so that those first months I felt
that I was part of a team that was making progress, that was moving ahead.
Frankly, after the end of that six months, at the turn of the year in 1994, for
a variety of reasons, I found myself in diagreement, fairly sharp disagreement
over some critical issues. And I think there was a growing feeling on the part
of the staff which I think naturally enough had resented my coming there.
There was a sort of a growing feeling on the part of the staff - well, we know
how to run this thing. Why do we need him? And I found that I was less
effective, I was in some ways isolated or iced out of some things. And it was
at that point that I said "Well, I didn't invite myself to this party. I came
here to help. And I'm willing to stay as long as I can be helpful. I don't
want to be part of your electioneering, because I don't want to take part in
elections against Republicans." But at that point I began to make plans to
leave. So it was a matter of time before, I helped out a little bit in the
last several months on the foreign policy side. So there was a period of time
where I thought I was helpful.
But did it bring permanent stability? Did it achive all that I had hoped?
No. I clearly, the bridges we had hoped to build, the bi-partisan bridges,
were never really fully constructed and if anything, I think Washington is more
poisoned in its atmosphere today than it was three or four years ago. There's
much more partisanship, and there's much less trust than there was a few years
ago. The relationship with the press that the President was looking for, the
relationship with the Washington community, has been up and down, just to put
it charitably. But I do think he stabilized himself and put himself in the
position that he had the capacity to go on and do other things for the country.
In a pure nuts and bolts sense of how an office is run, how decisions were
made, you said it was chaos. In the sense of who Bill Clinton is, the
strengths and weaknesses. Can you talk about that?
Well, I thought that, Bill Clinton is an extraordinarily bright man, and he's
primarily about ideas and public policy questions. That's where he lives and
breathes. He sort of, that's what gives him energy, in addition to the contact
with people which energizes him. He is not an organizational person. He
doesn't think managerially. This is not his strength. Other people have done
that for him. He wants results, but he doesn't think in organizational boxes.
I think he would probably be the last person to want to go in and help run a
major corporation, for example. It's just not who he is. And Democrats by and
large, I think, are more freewheeling than Republicans are. Republicans tend
to have a more managerial sensibility about them. That's what they come from.
That's what they like, and they tend to organize them better.
I also thought that Bill Clinton......it is an enormous leap to come from a
small land locked state in America to Washington DC. Our most memorable
Presidents in the twentieth century tended to have been governors of big
states. Like Woodrow Wilson came out of New Jersey. Teddy Roosevelt and
Franklin Roosevelt came out of New York, where they were governors. Ronald
Reagan came out of California. It's a very different experience coming from
one of those big states than to come out of Georgia. The President coming to
Washington, to come out of Arkansas to Washington. Not that those aren't fine
states, but they are just very different places.
You come here. You find its culture is extraordinarily different. The
expectations are extraordinarily different. The scrutiny is unbelievably
different. It's miles apart. I think that the Clintons made some of their
most fundamental mistakes, by their own acknowledgement, in the early weeks
just after they were elected. And one of those mistakes was to decide to
bring essentially their campaign team, a very talented group of people but
inexperienced in the ways of Washington, to be their essential entourage in
Washington. And that campaign team, and as I say again, they are some of the
most talented people of their generation, but they did not know the ways of
this sort of strange Byzantine city. And they didn't settle in a way that made
themselves friendly toward others in Washington, so they didn't have a lot of
help frankly from a lot of Washingtonians. But there was almost a sense of
alienation right from the beginning which I think got in the way.
So, by the time I came in six months into the administration, there were so
many crises that had piled up, there were so many balls in the air, it was
extraordinarily difficult for anyone to manage it under the best of
circumstances. But given the fact that this was still a crew that was breaking
in, that was still trying to find its morrings, it often seemed, it could be
very chaotic. Someone inside said you know the best metaphor for this is to go
in to watch ten year olds play soccer. Because they are very enthusiastic and
they can be very talented, but there's no one who ever holds position.
Wherever the ball is, you see twelve kids gathered around trying to chase
after the ball.
Now, I should emphasize that every White House has its confusions. I
finally remember Ronald Reagan saying about his White House that the right
hand sometimes didn't know what the far right hand was doing. So, confusion is
endemic to the place. But this went beyond what is ordinary. I think it would
straighten out over time. I think this is a much better team now than it was
in the beginning. They know the mechanics of the presidency and they're
executing it a lot more effectively.
Understand, Bill Clinton is one of the most eclectic people I think one will
ever encounter. My first conversation with him came back in the mid 1980's.
He was reading a book about Japanese workers, and we got into a long
conversation about the US and Japan. And yet this was a man who would veer off
and talk to you about the 19th century British writers, or then in the next
conversation might be off talking about welfare reform or what we had to do
about schools in this country and that sort of thing. His mind is very nimble
and he likes to move in and out of lots and lots of different topics, but it's
the kind of mind, it's not a sort of disciplined here are the three points that
we want to emphasize at all times. And so, organizationally you find that the
people around him have many of the same traits, that he does not bring in
organizers, he brings in people that he enjoys talking to in part, that he
enjoys talking over ideas with. And these are not necessarily the kinds of
people who run big corporations, who run big organizations. These are not
managerial types that he enjoys having around him. And I think that that is
reflected in the White House.
I have to tell you, this man, I think one of the things that is not understood
about him around the country is just how, how good his mind is, how quick his
mind is. I found it very disarming and sometimes disheartening sometimes to
walk in and have a conversation with him in which there would be three or
people in the Oval Office, and it would be a very animated conversation. He'd
be carrying his part of the conversation on, asking questions and going down,
running down the field and so forth and all the while you're talking to him
he's filling out a New York Times crossword puzzle. Now, I found that very
hard to deal with, as someone who has an enormous amount of difficulty with the
New York Times crossword puzzle and has to have absolute silence to walk in and
have this guy filling this out, and you'll be in the middle of a conversation
about welfare and he'll say, "Tell me about the opera so-and-so, who was that
Another part of his managerial style is his temper.
All of us express our anger or our frustrations in different ways.
There was a time when I first came in when I thought he had lost his self
confidence and he was extraordinarliy frustrated. And so periodically, I had
never seen this before, and periodically there would just be these eruptions!
And he would just go off. Now, he would calm down very quickly. He didn't
bear any grudges. And if he thought he had gone too far, he would come back
and apologize. Frankly, he was very good with me. He didn't do that to me,
but I did see it with other people. Perhaps because I was just a little older
than he was, I was in a little different place.
But it reminded me very much of what I heard about Lyndon Johnson. You know,
Johnson had this capacity to erupt. And then he would start sending you gifts.
I think Doris Kearns Goodwin got I think the same gift, I think an electric
toothbrush. I think she got eighteen of them over time from Lyndon Johnson.
But Bill Clinton has, can be a kind of bright orb when he just feels like
sometimes should have been done the right way, was not done the right way, and
he just goes off. But the redeeming quality is that it passes very quickly.
It's like a thunder clap, and the sun comes out pretty quickly thereafter, and
you go on. And it's sort of, it rocks you back in your seat a little bit the
first time you see it, but you learn to go on with it, and I think people learn
to live with it very well.
And there may be something healthy about it in the end. I mean, when you're
President, it is very hard to know where you let off steam. I often thought in
the White House, there ought to be a scream room where you could go off
sometime in the middle of the day. And he would have enjoyed that. He was
In what ways is his presidency in some sense a reprise from what happened
when he was governor?...
I wasn't there nor did I watch closely his first two years as governor,
but I do think from what I've read about it that there's a similarity. Bill
Clinton has an inordinate high level of ambition for what he would like to
accomplish. There is a story that David Marianiss, his biographer tells, about
when he was young and hearing that great men took cat naps and slept only four
or five hours a night and he immediately went home, took a cat nap and started
sleeping only four or five hours a night.
He clearly has seen himself, because I think he's been told this all his life,
that you're blessed with certain talents in life and you ought to give
something back. And I think like a good many Presidents, you come in when
you're President and you sort of think maybe , you know, you look up there at
Mount Rushmore and you think about those four great men up there on Mount
Rushmore, and you'd like to be in that path, you'd like to leave your mark.
And I think that Bill Clinton, more than most Presidents, perhaps more than
anyone other than, in recent history, Lyndon Johnson and perhaps Richard Nixon
in foreign affairs, saw himself as someone who had a capacity to leave a mark
and a very high mark in American affairs. So he came in with this very large
set of ambitions about what he might accomplish in the presidency. And I think
he overeached. He found that it was much more difficult to achieve change than
others expected. But I think he and Newt Gingrich are very similiar in that
sense. Both of them came in wanting to make almost revolutionary changes in
very different ways. But both of them found that the system was much more
resistant than they had expected, and they over-reached, and they stumbled.
The 1994 elections were the corrective, for Clinton just as his loss in
Arkansas after his first term in office had been the corrective there and he
had to go back and rethink who he was, what he could achieve and what he could
be in this world. But I don't think there's any question that Bill Clinton in
many ways reminds me of Lyndon Johnson, because he is this sort of larger than
life character in some ways, a man of large appetites and a man of high
ambitions. And he has enormous strengths, and he has enormous weaknesses.
And all of them are just out on the public record. They're out there for
public display. And he doesn't pick up, you know he doesn't show you his
appendectomy, and he doesn't pick up dogs by their ears. But there is about
him this larger than life quality that I think both in some ways is his most
endearing quality but it can also be his greatest enemy.
What about this need to make an impression, there is an emotional
through-line, whether it's political, personal...
If he meets you, he has an innate desire for you to remember him and to
remember something about him. He wants to connect with you at some level. It
may be emothional. It may be intellectual. But he wants when you walk away
from that conversation "Bill Clinton. He was really this or he was really
that." And that is really true of a lot of politicians. I think it's more on
display with Bill Clinton. And there's no question that both for men and
women, I don't want to mistate this, it can be very seductive. 'Cause he can
draw you into his orbit. He can be absolutely charming. And it's not
something that is fake. I mean you run into some politicians, and there's sort
of this button they push, and they become charming. That's true in Washington,
I think more often than we'd like to admit. I think that's just who he is. He
would meet some[one] from Angola that would never vote for him and he'd want to
charm that person. That's just who he is. He's that kind of human being.
Now, descending into psychobabble, where do you see that coming from?
I don't know. I sort of learned to take people as they are and not try [to]
totally figure out their roots. People say it comes from his you know the
kind of chilhood he had, but you know, different children could have come out
of the same childhoood and been quite different. There has to be something in
What happened during those first three years of his administration? All
the initiatives that were promised?
Understand for starters, when I say he has high ambitions, he wants to achive
great things, he does have this progressive instinct to see the government as
an instrument for making the country better. For having lives better. So, he
came in with the notion originally that through a series of legislative actions
and some executive orders but more importantly legislative actions, he could
help to lead the country to a better standard of living, a better way of life,
a better culture.
I was not there in the early months, but my very firm impression was that one
of the early stumbles on the gays in the military was something that was being
done with the left hand to the White House. It was taken as we did this, we
promised this in the campaign. We're gonna do it Tuesday, and then Wednesday
we're gonna move onto something else. I think they were totally blindsighted
by the kind of reaction it raised. And there's a longer story behind that, if
you want to get into that, I'd be happy to do that, any of that. I think they
had a larger agenda. Early on, in the first year, I know he felt he wanted to
get to health care reform quickly. They had some hope that they could do it as
part of the budget agreement early on. George Mitchell talked to them about
it. Others talked about it. They decided that no this is too big. We have to
postpone it. Let's go ahead and clear away what Bill Clinton called "the bone
in the throat." We can't do anything else unless we clear up the federal
budget problem. Therefore the budget issue became sort of front and center for
much of the first year, and he spent a lot of his time on that but he felt that
was a bone in the throat, and until you remove the bone, you couldn't in fact
enjoy the rest of the things you wanted to do.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was pushing, "Let's get the health care thing done."
And he said, "No, no, we've got to get the budget done first and then we'll get
to healthcare." There was this tension in the first year about how soon are we
gonna get to healthcare. Because Jay Rockefeller, the Senator from West
Virginia, was saying if you don't get it done this year, it's probobly not
gonna happen. You've got to get it done this year. So, Mrs Clinton really
wanted to press and get health care reform up there. Meanwhile, negotiations
with the Mexicans and with the Canadians over trade were gathering momentum,
and an agreement was almost put together, and here comes Lloyd Bensten and Warren
Christopher, I think they were absolutely right, saying we've got an agreement.
We've gotta get it done this year. And it's gonna take a lot of political
muscle to get it done, because there's a lot of Democratic opposition, and the
country's not yet behind it. So Mrs. Clinton comes along and says, "What about
my healthcare plan? We had to get this done this year."
And there was a collision in the summer of 1993, the first year, between
trying to get all these things done, and one additional piece of this was that
the Vice-President had been given responsibility for the Reinventing Government
project. And he, it put an enormous amount of time in the first six months [on]
his vice presidency, maybe 50% of his time or so into changing the structure of
government. So by mid-year he was ready to go with his project.
So you had four big projects. Normally a White House has one, maybe two. But
here were four. And there was a lot of tugging and pulling and trying to go
back and forth about what's the sequencing? Which one has priority? If we try
to do the budget and if we try to do NAFTA and if do reinvent government, is
healthcare going to get squashed? That was Mrs. Clinton's concern. And the
President who had made this large commitment you know he was very committed to
healthcare as well. So there was a lot of banging around. There was so much
on the plate.
But the fact that there were four major initiatives out there was I think
emblematic of what Bill Clinton was all about. He wanted to do everything. He
wanted to be in some ways Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt rolled into
one, you know to accomplish as much as he could in the first couple of years.
And it was an enormous thrust forward, but it was difficult. He did accomplish
some of it, but health care was pushed off and off and then the ambition levels
for health care grew to be so enormous and there was a sense inside, if you
were an incrementalist. That was the code word. That was the dirty word for
being someone who just wanted small change. I happen to be in the camp of
believing let's get a few things done first, then get a few more things done,
and keep building. It's a much better way to go. But no, no, we wanted to get
That illustrates that both the Clintons came in with this sense that they could
transform America. This could be a presidency, America was ready. And I do
think there was a sense when they first came in that America seemed to be ready
for a new progressive period, a new progressive era that would combine Teddy
Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in a sense, and have both Republicans and
Democrats on board. There are many of us who come out of Republican circles
who believe some reforms are important, critical for the country now, so they
were willing to join in and say yes we have to join in to make this a better
world for our kids. I think that the Clintons had this sense that they could
lead a crusade to really change America and that alot of Democrats and
Republicans would be with them on that, and what they found was that there was
much more resistance to change than they expected. And frankly, from my
perspective, some of the programs didn't fit the mood of the country. The
country did not want more big government, and that's what they saw in the
health care reform. And they weren't prepared to accept it.
The greatest criticism of Clinton has not been that he is overly ambitious,
but rather that he doesn't stand for anything.
I disagree with the notion that he doesn't stand for anything. Where I think
he finds that he often gets into trouble and he's so heavily criticized is he
often thinks we want to get to Rome but there are many roads that lead to Rome,
and he may be on week one on this particular road and everyone wants to join
him on that road, and then somehow he sees maybe the other road's a better way
to get there. And he moves over and people say, "Wait. I thought he was over
here." And it bothers them a great deal and naturally so.
We want in our leaders simple clear directions. Bill Clinton is not a simple
clear person. And we rallied to Reagan because of the clarity of what he
thought, and people thought he's firm, he's steady, he's tough and we're going
somewhere with that. With Bill Clinton, it's in his character to see the world
as much more complex. And he sees what he thinks on Monday, he may look at the
same problem and say, "Oh there's another side to this and there's a lot of
pressure over here, maybe we ought to move over here or we ought to talk about
some other piece of it or some other angle on the same thing." I think people
feel like he's changing his position. They don't quite know where he is.
It's not that he doesn't want the same objectives. I think he does over time.
I think he has been, I think he did leave some people who believe so deeply in
health care reform by not giving the health care bill a proper burial at the
time it went down, and then by not continuing to push for health care reform in
a big big way, it left a lot of people who believe in health care reform
feeling that he'd walked away from them. And that was disheartening to some of
FL: You described the health care reform to be the greatest public policy
failure since the Vietnam War.
Well, I did think the health care reform effort was a huge public policy
failure in many ways the biggest since Vietnam, in large part because an entire
presidency was committted to it for more than a year to achieve a major bill.
And it just slipped away, so that in the end, instead of geting some major
reform, at least to cover the uninsured or to get portability to people, which
would be a modest beginning, that all has been beyond our grasp for the first
term of the Clinton presidency.
Now maybe we'll get it, if there is a second term maybe we'll see it there.
But I thought that the project as conceive, I was inside the administration at
the time and found myself among those who felt that it did not respect
political realities, that was possible within the political system was what we
should go for and not what was not possible. It struck me as being too much
government, which relied more on the free market system that we needed to put a
coalition together from the center. There were a variety of things we could go
through about where it seemed to me to be off-base. But it did reflect, I
thought this large set of ambitions that both the President and his wife
brought to the issue and that it was in their character to want dramatic
changes. And I think that he has acknowledged since then on more than one
occasion that he thinks he made a mistake. You know, in retrospect, they
should have done it differently. They should have gone a more incremental
route and sought a coalition of the center. I thought the politics of health
care reform were mistaken right from the beginning. I was among those who felt
come up with a proposal that enjoys the support of moderate Republicans and
moderate Democrats and build out from there your coalition. And instead the
notion was to come up with a proposal that would enjoy the support of the left
part of the Democratic party, the base of the Democratic party, the single
payer group. Get them on board with a proposal which was not single payer and
then move toward the center over time. And I thought that that was wrong-
headed, that it was in effect that forced you to come up with a proposal that
the country wouldn't like, which you had to defend publicly for a few months
before you moved. It was vulnerable to the kind of attack that opened up, and
very importantly, it didn't bring the moderate Republicans on board.
Major social reform in this country, and I thought this was a lesson lost, one
of the things I want to get back to...so often is that there are lessons from
the last thirty or forty years of public policy that are out there to be
learned. So frequently new generations come to this city come to public life,
and they are not aware of those lessons. A new generation comes in that is not
fully aware of what all the ramifications of Watergate, and you get this
nonsense about the FBI files, you know, this outrage about the FBI files. I
think from people who really didn't understand how the FBI had been abused
twenty-five years ago, and they had forgotten those lessons. I think the
lessons of the past for a new generation about public policy reform and social
reform is that the major social reforms that passed in this country were very
large bi-partisan majorities. Talk to Pat Moynihan about that. He can give
you chapter and verse. And this new generation came in and said, "We can be
different. We can do it differently from what anyone else has ever done it.
We can go off and have our whole different politics."
While there were lots of forces against the health care reform proposal, a
lot of its failure was connected in a very personal way to these two people,
I think it's been very difficult for Mrs. Clinton. They have been out on the
ramparts, from their perspective, on many issues of social good, social
goodness and they associate themselves with people who are trying to do good
things for America. And it's very hard for someone who's been through that and
been out there and often seen villains who are opposing social change of the
kind they believe in. It's often very difficult for them to accommodate the
perspectives of the quote villains.
And I do think that there was a tenedency that came out of the 60's, and so
many people in politics today are products of the 60's, that this is right and
therefore there's only one way to do this, in effect. And there's a
divisiveness that comes with that. There is a , from the point of view of your
opponents, what they see as moral arrogance. From your persepective, this is
what's good. This is what's right. This is what's morally right. And
therefore it's important to stick to your guns. And politics, if you become
too moralistic about it, it's frequently difficult to reach the kind of
compromises that make progress possible. And so that there, I think because of
who she was, Mrs. Clinton was, there was an unwillingness on the part of some
of her opponents to talk to her. People always wanted to be sort of deferential
to her or respectiful of her or whatever it may be. So sometimes she would
come away from conversations with the hill, assuming because people had been so
positive to her, that she had their support when in fact probably that was not
true. And frankly there were times when they would make arguments about how
the bill oughta be changed, and then they saw no change. And they thought they
weren't being listened to. And they felt, with some justification, that the
White House wasn't interested in compromise. The White House wanted it all in
I can't tell you how much this city has changed in the sense that different
groups of people now in this city, for the first time in my life, can look at
the same set of facts and come to extraordinarily different conclusions about
reality, what those facts mean. And what you find is that Hillary Clinton has
a band of devoted followers who think that she is, you know, almost Joan of Arc.
And they tell her that. And others think this is crazy. This is totally off
kilter. This is not the way the country is. This doesn't represent, these
kind of reforms, as in health care cut against the grain of what America is all
about and are totally unwilling to go down that path. And so you've got this
kind of clash in which some people see her as self-righteous and others
saying she's heroic. And it's hard for anybody to put together a picture which
I think has objectivity to it about who she is and what she represents.
You know, I frankly think she has paid a price for being threatening to some
men. Men of my generation feel somewhat threatened by [her], because they see her
being representative of a new group of women who are I quote, "too pushy." On
the other hand, she's been, she's one of the ones who's been out breaking new
barriers, settting new sights for women. And I think in the long run, history
will probably remember her very well for that. I myself found that there was
probably no one with whom I disagreed more on policy and on some other issues,
than I did with Mrs. Clinton. But I also left there with a very high regard
for who she was. She came by her views honestly, and she's a fighter. And she
believes in the struggle, and even though I disagree with her, I admire that
she's true to that.
You had a very serious disagreement with her about Whitewater that had
We had, our sharpest disagreements we had were over health care and over
Whitewater. Again, they were respectful disagreements. I just came out to a
different place than where she was. I mean, but there's no question that I
felt early on, having lived through and being a part of the Watergate era, I
felt it was very obvious what one had to do early on about Whitewater. I
didn't think it took a rocket scientist to figure this out. And that is you
had to disgorge everything, put it all out on the table, take your lumps, what
ever they were and get it behind you. Because once you start withholding
things in this new environment, people are automatically suspicious. They
start dragging it out of you. Everything comes out. It comes out in the worst
possible way. And it goes on and on and on and can and indeed in this case it
did lead to a special prosecutor. I thought whatever there was there, and I
couldn't imagine there being anything that, there being that much treachery or
criminality or whatever it may be, and still don't see any evidence that
there's anything hard there.
I think, had everything we know today been put out on the line from day one, the
country would have been better off. I thought they would have been better off.
And I thought they could have moved on with their agenda more easily. Yeah, it
would have been a storm for awhile, but the storm would have passed. She
didn't see it that way, I think in part because a lot of the lawyers around her
told her that was not at all the way it was gonna work out and that their
documents that they had were so incomplete, that would only open more questions
and it would only feed the fires, and the fires would be consuming overtime,
and you're better off just fighting it out. We had very sharp disagreements at
that time, and I lost. But those things happen. Sometimes, if you're a member
of the staff...I wasn't elected. They were elected. Well, Bill Clinton was
elected. And they ultimately have to make those kinds of decisions.
Another criticism of the administration has to do with strategy and the idea
of living in the campaign mode as opposed to governing.
It's interesting. My sense that Bill Clinton has, because of Arkansas where he
had to run every two years, he's almost on a two-year rhythm in his political
life. When you have to run every two years, as you find in the House of
Representatives, you're constantly thinking about the next election, because
it's just right over the horizon. And there was tendency among a lot of people
around the President including the President himself, to be thinking
politically 'cause we've got an election campaign that's coming up. We're
almost into a permanent campaign in this country in the presidency as it is,
that one has to constantly filter things through a political lens.
I think he now realizes he would have been so much better off had he, before he
became President, sat down and said, "What are the three big things I want to
accomplish in my first term? What do I want to be remembered for by history in
my first term? Not by the voters, but by history." And there's a difference.
And one never had a sense that that's what the administration was about. And
frankly I think that's one of the critical things for him, if he were elected, I
think it's critical that people know before he's elected what his second term
is all about, what are the three things he stands for or wants to accomplish.
If it's clear in the campaign, then he'll have a mandate he can govern more
The second term can be a rough second term. Second terms tend to be weaker
than first terms. History has born that out just abundently. But I felt that
because there was a lack of sort of a vision of what exactly one wants to
accomplish, there wasn't a strategy that would attach to it, then from strategy
begin to devise tactics. But you have to have a plan. You have to know sort
of here's where we want to go. And from the plan you can then, you can devise
your polls, you can devise your communications plan, you can devise your
legislative strategy and tactics. All of those things flow from that. But if
you start back in sort of "We're not quite sure where we want to go, what is it
we think we can get passed?" You're in a very different position, because then
you start taking polls to see where the public is.
What we know from the presidency is you can change the poll through leadership.
I mean Jimmy Carter, regarded as ineffectual by so many people, changed Amercan
minds about the Panama Canal. He had huge opposition to the Panama Canal
when he started, and he changed people's minds about it. And the guy wasn't
very popular. Bill Clinton changed people's minds about NAFTA. NAFTA started
out two to one negative. By the time it was over it was like two to one
positive in terms of the way people thought about it. So you don't start with
the poll. You start saying, "What is it we want to do for the country? Why are
we here? When we leave here, what do we want to leave behind?" And then you
work from there. And what I felt, and Bill Clinton's presidency is not the
first one to suffer from this. His predecessor had the same question. You
know, George Bush had the same question.